Behind the scenes of Heat Check’s loss to Knicks Gaming in the epic NBA 2K League finals
Similar to the Miami Heat in 2011, the villainous Heat Check Gaming squad fell short of a title
On April 4, the day of the draft for the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League, Derric “Famous Enough” Franklin got the exact squad he wanted. The team operations coordinator (aka general manager/coach) for Miami’s Heat Check Gaming drafted Juan “Hotshot” Rodriguez at center, Stanley “MaJes7ic” LeBron at point guard, Basil “24k Dropoff” Rose at power forward, Carlos “Sharpshooterlos” Zayas-Dias at small forward, and Jalen “Jalen03303” Jones and Rahmel “HyPeR iS Pro” Wilkins as shooting guards. “We’re gonna go win a championship,” Famous told his team at the draft, “because I feel like we got the best team.” After a 15-week regular season, three tournaments and two rounds of playoffs, Heat Check lived up to Franklin’s early prediction by advancing to the NBA 2K League finals to face Knicks Gaming. They had one goal in mind: to bring the championship trophy back to Miami.
LONG ISLAND CITY, NEW YORK — In the green room on the second level of the NBA 2K League Studio, Derric “Famous Enough” Franklin couldn’t take his eyes from the screen in front of him. The moment the leader of Heat Check Gaming and his players prepared for and anxiously awaited for so long had already come and gone.
The Cinderella Knicks Gaming team — the eighth and lowest seed heading into the playoffs — swept the red-hot sixth-seeded Heat Check in a best-of-three final series. So Famous watched the TV intently as the first champions of the league were presented with the trophy. The ceremony ended moments later, and three Knicks gamers — Idris “Idrisdagoat6” Richardson, Nathaniel “NateKahl” Kahl and Marc “xKPMR” Rodriguez — walked past him with hardware in hand and gold confetti still on their clothes. New York was also taking home a pot of $300,000 to split among its players, while Miami would do the same with the runner-up prize of $100,000.
“We weren’t supposed to be here … we were never supposed to be here,” Famous told Heat Check players in their team training room after the series, pausing between sentences to remove his glasses as tears streamed down his face. “But we made it here.” (Editor’s note: This event took place about 24 hours before a gamer opened fire at a Madden 19 qualifying tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, killing two people and sending 11 others to the hospital. The slain victims were identified as Taylor “SpotmePlzzz” Robertson, 28, and Elijah “Trueboy” Clayton. Tim “oLARRY” Anselimo, who played in the 2K League this season for Bucks Gaming, was among the wounded.)
For a while, it didn’t look like Heat Check would be playing on the final day of the season. The team lost eight of its first 12 games and failed to make it past the opening round of all three in-season tournaments. Yet, after “The Turn” tournament in early June, Franklin figured the time had come for change. He implemented the radical 5-Out offense, which required every one of his players to switch positions. Hotshot went from center to small forward, MaJes7ic from point guard to center, 24k Dropoff from power forward to shooting guard, Sharpshooterlos from small forward to point guard and Jalen03303 from shooting guard to power forward.
The isolation-style offensive scheme placed the ball in the virtual hands of Hotshot, Heat Check’s top overall pick in April’s draft, and allowed him to cook, while his teammates surrounded the perimeter of the half court ready to shoot or feed him back the ball. The new system showed results to the tune of a five-game winning streak that propelled Heat Check into, and through, the playoffs. It also made Hotshot a NBA 2K League star and MVP finalist.
In his team’s first three playoff games, a single-elimination win over No. 3 seed Pistons GT and a best-of-three series sweep over No. 2 seed 76ers Gaming, Hotshot averaged a monstrous 50.3 points. His dominance kept Knicks power forward NateKahl up every night in the week leading up to the Finals.
“I wanted to know what side of the bed Hotshot got out on. To ballpark it … I was staying up until 5 in the morning watching Hotshot, and nothing else,” said NateKahl, who drew the assignment of guarding Heat Check’s prolific scorer. “I told my teammates. They didn’t believe me. But they’d knock on my door, open it up, and there I am watching it.”
In a scrum of reporters a few hours before the start of the series, NateKahl received an interesting question: Are you guys more afraid of Hotshot getting his or him passing out to shooters?
“Can I answer that?” Knicks small forward Idrisdagoat6 interrupted. “We ain’t afraid of nobody.”
Heat Check had a message too. On the backs of the custom black hoodies each of the team’s players rocked to the finals, two messages were printed in big bold white letters: “THE BAD GUYS” and “#ONEMANARMY,” separated by the team’s logo in between.
The Bad Guys. pic.twitter.com/tq66MV673y
— DIMER @ #NBA2kLeagueFinals (@DIMER2K) August 25, 2018
“That’s what everybody said in interviews this season: They’re like the Bad Boy Pistons. Because we just talk a lot of s—, and everybody in this league doesn’t like 5-Out. … It’s almost like the league really doesn’t want us to win,” said 24k Dropoff. He and Hotshot were the brainchildren behind the hoodies. Their original plan? Instead of the Heat Check logo, each player would have the picture of a different fictional supervillain. 24k Dropoff would get The Joker, Bane for Hotshot and Scarecrow for Sharpshooterlos. Accepting the role of villain is nothing new to a team in the Miami Heat’s organization. In 2011, during the newly minted LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big 3 era in South Beach, the trio of superstars, and particularly James, became NBA antiheroes with a grit they carried with them all the way to the Finals in their first season together.
“The hoodies are awesome,” said Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s chief marketing officer, who made the trip to New York for the 2K finals. “It’s us against the world, and if people are going to say this or that about Heat Check, we’re gonna embrace that. The players use it as motivation.”
Jamie “Dirk” Diaz Ruiz, a commentator/analyst for the 2K League, interviewed MaJes7ic onstage minutes before tipoff of Game 1. He was asked about the game plan to stop New York’s Dayvon “Goofy757” Curry, the best center in the league. “My job is to box him out and get a few stops, so Hotshot … one-man army,” said MaJes7ic, “can bring us home.”
But in the series opener, Knicks Gaming had Heat Check on the ropes, early and often, leading by double digits for most of the game, including by as many as 15 points late in the third quarter. New York virtually silenced the villains from Miami — the trash talk that often fuels them was essentially nonexistent. Although he’d finish with a game-high 44 points, on an efficient 20-of-25 shooting from the field, Hotshot didn’t really play like Hotshot. Perhaps it was a byproduct of the league banning one of the star player’s moves heading into the finals. In Heat Check’s first semifinal game against the 76ers, Hotshot debuted the move — a crossover inside the paint that spins his defender off him and leads to an easy, point-blank bucket almost every time it’s employed.
The NBA 2K League deemed the combination an unfair advantage, comparing it to a stiff arm in football, and emailed Hotshot after Heat Check clinched a championship berth, barring him from using the move in the finals. The message stated that the first time Hotshot scored off of the move, he’d be given a warning. The next time it happened, he’d be immediately ejected from the game and replaced by Heat Check’s sixth man, Rahmel “HyPeR iS Pro” Wilkins. “I think the ban took away some of Hotshot’s effectiveness in the paint because the move is something that you can’t control all the time … so the first game, Hotshot was kind of timid,” Franklin said.
Yet the Knicks couldn’t fully pull away. They allowed Heat Check to stick around, and in the fourth quarter, 24k Dropoff came alive. The power forward who converted to shooting guard midway through the season combined with Hotshot to form a one-two punch that brought their team within three points with less than a minute left. But in a crucial transition moment for Miami, Sharpshooterlos missed the wide-open 24kDropoff calling for the ball behind the 3-point line on the right wing. Sharpshooterlos instead elected to go for a layup that was blocked by Goofy757.
The possession ultimately ended in a turnover with 43.1 seconds left on the clock. 24kDropoff would redeem his teammate on Miami’s next trip down the court on offense with a clutch 3-pointer to bring the game within one point at the 15.8-second mark. After two made Knicks free throws, 24kDropoff would get a chance at a game-tying 3 — but it clanked, allowing the Knicks to escape with a 69-66 win in Game 1.
Back in Heat Check’s training room during a 20-minute break until the next game, 24kDropoff sat in the corner by himself. Overcome by emotion, he slammed his fist on the keyboard of the gaming station in front of him and began to cry. The scenario that he and Heat Check would now face was simple: Win Game 2 and keep championship hopes alive. Lose and go home empty-handed.
“You’re good,” Hotshot told his embattled teammate, as he handed him the controller that he’d temporarily abandoned. “We’ve got two more games.”
In the second matchup of the series, the narrative completely shifted. Heat Check came out firing, jumping out to an early commanding lead that was sustained for the first three quarters. Most importantly, the jawing returned to Miami’s arsenal. They returned to their comfort zone as the bad guys. “I’m not losing this game!” Sharpshooterlos yelled in the direction of Goofy, “We ain’t going home!” McCullough, sitting in the first row behind the competing Heat Check players, echoed the team’s small forward. “We’re not going home!” he bellowed.
Heat Check possessed a solid 11-point lead at the start of the final six-minute fourth quarter. On the other side of the studio, the Knicks retained their composure, and slowly but surely, their opponent started to unravel. The beginning of the end came with about 40 seconds left in the game. Heat Check was clinging to a one-point lead, and Hotshot initiated the 5-Out offense.
In desperate need of a bucket, he drove to the basket but came up empty. Hotshot kicked the ball out to Jalen03303, who made a strong drive to the basket and went up for a two-handed dunk. Yet, somehow he missed. Maybe the defender trailing behind him altered the shot ever so slightly. Maybe it was a glitch, or “some 2K B.S.,” as MaJes7ic would later claim. Regardless, the shot didn’t fall, and in transition, Eric “YEYNotGaming” Ward hit a huge right corner 3 to give the Knicks the lead, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
New York would eventually go up by three points, and with 3.6 seconds left, no timeouts and the entire length of the court to cover, Heat Check had one last chance at a prayer. Hotshot found MaJes7ic on the right wing, and he threw up a heave. On the screen in front of him, his shot meter turned green. If you’ve ever played 2K, you know that green means that the shot will fall what seems like 99.9 percent of the time. But MaJes7ic’s didn’t drop, and the Knicks held on to win the game, 74-71, and sweep the series.
“A lot of times, the end-of-the-clock shots give that green animation to the players, looking like it’s going in,” Franklin said. “That shot definitely wasn’t green … but I thought it was a great look. … I thought it was going in.”
There’s such a fine line between winning and losing — especially in a video game. “I feel like the Heat in 2011,” said MaJes7ic. That first year of James, Wade and Bosh in Miami, the Heat lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Seven years later, history basically repeated itself. The saga of the NBA 2K League’s inaugural season had come to an end, with the criticism-fueled gamers, who took so much pride in becoming villains, falling just short of a triumph.
“I take the blame,” Jalen03303 told his teammates after Game 2, his late blunder still fresh in mind.
“What blame?” 24kDropoff said. “You missed a dunk. It happens.”
“It’s not even that,” Jalen03303 responded. “We ain’t gonna be together again.”
Next season, Franklin will return as team operations coordinator of Heat Check Gaming. But with four new teams — the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves — joining the league and an expansion draft taking place in late September, it’s unlikely that Franklin will be able to retain his entire squad.
“I’m going to try to bring back as many players as I can from this original team,” he said. “I think no matter what skill level you put on the floor, or how good you think somebody is, chemistry will always outweigh a lot of things.”
Like Franklin, all Hotshot could do is watch in the aftermath of the loss. Sitting off to the side inside the studio well after the series had ended, he gazed at the stage as Knicks players continued interviews and posed beside the trophy — championship hats on their heads and T-shirts on their backs.
“Just tryna soak it in,” Hotshot said. “What could’ve been.”